By Chris Wallace
By now you will be sick of turkey, ham and prawn leftovers. Why not consider a traditional French Christmas feast next year? Oysters, foie gras, capon with truffles, cheese and chocolate is the go according to English journalist Anthony Peregrine, just returned from Aquitaine in south-west France.
It’s odd in a food culture as cosmopolitan as ours that traditional English Christmas fare, Aussie-adjusted with the addition of seafood, so dominates - even more surprising given how recent turkey’s Christmas status really is.
Turkey was introduced into England from North America in the mid-16th century. Roast beef and goose for the rich and rabbit for the poor were typical English yuletide fare until Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol featured turkey and tipped the table decisively in its favour. By the late Victorian era, turkey was entrenched as the centerpiece of the traditional Christmas spread.
The other seemingly eternal feature of Christmas gatherings is the family fight. There’s a grim seasonal spike in domestic violence as family members come together at close quarters, eat and drink too much and in many cases pick over old sores. But has it always been an (in this case unattractive) element of the festive season or, like turkey, is it a relatively recent facet of the Christmas experience?
The Lion in Winter now at the Royal Haymarket Theatre in London would have one believe that Christmas family brawling goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages. It’s the story of a family Christmas in 1183. Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and three of their sons (Richard, Geoffrey and John) join in a typical family conflagration concerning atypical family assets: the vast holdings of Henry and Eleanor and who will succeed Henry as king.
Henry fights for youngest son “Johnny” to succeed him. Eleanor fights for Richard. In the middle is the ignored son Geoffrey – “There’s no affection for me here” – who rues there’s nought for him (except some of the best lines). “Ah, Christmas…warm and rosy time,” Geoffrey says. “The hot wine steams, the Yule log roars, and we’re the fat that’s in the fire.”
Rosemary Harris won a Tony playing Eleanor in the original Broadway production of the James Goldman play (1966) and Katherine Hepburn won an Oscar in the film version (1968) opposite Peter O’Toole as Henry. Stockard Channing and Laurence Fishburne played Eleanor and Henry in a 1999 US revival of the play. It’s Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay’s turn in this year’s Trevor Nunn-directed West End revival. Lumley and Lindsay make a great old married couple, sizzling and scrapping as their boys, Henry’s mistress Alais and the King of France (Phillip II) all circle.
The Lion in Winter raises a couple of fundamental questions. Why do people stay married? And what is the role of competition in families?
Henry is pro-competition. In the Middle Ages as now, if you’re no good at scrapping your way to the top goes the reasoning, there’s little chance you’ll have the skills to hold on if you make it there. “They may snap at me and plot, and that makes them the kind of sons I want,” Henry says.
Why do people stay married? By the end of the play it’s clear that despite age and sharply prosecuted opposition to Henry’s will, he and Eleanor are locked in deep mutual fascination played out in power games of the highest order. Henry’s young mistress Alais may be the butter in life’s seasoning but it’s the sage, onion and thyme of Eleanor for which his appetite is perpetually keen. The brawling boys are mere lumpen breadcrumbs shaped to their parents’ martial purposes.
Engagement between daring, living beings, not doormats, keeps relationships vivid, seems to be the message, even if that takes an unfortunate form with Henry and Eleanor. (When the play is set, she is his prisoner, let out only at Easter and Christmas, being punished her for backing another son’s revolt against him some years earlier. That’s the thing about revolts – better to win them than lose.)
Historian Helen Castor pointed out at a pre-performance talk at The Haymarket that, of course, playwright John Goldman invented the Christmas of 1183 that we experience in The Lion in Winter but that the historical underpinnings of the family portrayed are true. Castor’s book She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth – Hilary Mantel endorsed, no less – tells Eleanor’s story (without relying on an imaginary Christmas), along with those of a few more excellent queens.
Here’s my recipe for a great Christmas next year: a copy of Castor’s She-Wolves and a ticket to Aquitaine. I can taste the foie gras and capon with truffles now.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 31 December 2011